The Cleanest Line: A Recreation Ecology Study of Rock-Climbing in Southern Appalachia
“I’m after the cleanest line on the steepest part of the face.”
—Chris Malloy, professional surfer and climber
Outdoor recreation, in many forms, is growing throughout the Southern Appalachian region. Demand for spaces in which to practice rock-climbing and other outdoor recreational activities exceeds supply. Barriers to the development of additional climbing sites, as well as to maintaining access current sites, exist and include concerns over liability and environmental integrity. This project will address the latter of these concerns through an application of the theory and research techniques of recreation ecology to the study of the environmental impacts of rock-climbing in Southern Appalachia. The project timeline is one year. After this year, I plan to expand the project to include other outdoor recreational activities in addition to rock-climbing. This project will benefit landowners and managers, both on the Domain and throughout the region, by providing data relevant to recreation-based land-use management.
Because of the region’s mountainous landscape, agreeable climate, and numerous access sites on both public and private land, rock-climbing has become a sport with increasing participation within Southern Appalachia. Popular climbing sites exist throughout Tennessee (including several sites directly on the Domain of the University of the South), northern Alabama and Georgia, western North Carolina, and eastern Kentucky. Climbing sites are modified to support the activity through the clearing of vegetation from around the cliff base (to make room for belaying and observing), the construction of signs and placards to identify trails and cliffs, and the installation of bolts and anchors directly into the rock face as protection for climbers. In spite of these common landscape modifications to facilitate rock-climbing, the climbing community itself is often viewed, especially from within but also by some outsiders, as being largely environmentalist in its character and favor able toward land protection in its politics (Access Fund 2016). Climbers are not universally perceived as benign environmentalists, however, by land managers and others who might grant or restrict access to potential climbing sites. Owing to both concerns over liability and fear of environmental degradation, rock-climbing is prohibited in many places within Southern Appalachia (Cavlovic 2000).
To shed light on the question of the environmental impact of rock-climbing I propose to develop a multi-year research project that, with student participation, will investigate sustainability issues related to the sport as it is practiced in Southern Appalachia. This project will start on the Domain of the University of the South, and expand outward to other climbing areas in the region, specifically within Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky.
Project Alignment with the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies
Like many former industrial or agricultural regions, Southern Appalachia is witnessing an economic shift toward tourism. While economists, including those here at Sewanee, have long recognized this “recreation land boom” (Gottfried 1977, 44), the importance of recreation in the region has continued to grow in recent years. According to the 2002 Southern Forest Resource Assessment,
“Driven by a growing population and changes in income and other demographics, recreation uses of all types have increased, and recreation pressures on public land are substantial. This trend is expected to continue.” (Wear and Greis 2002, 9)
The Collaborative, according to its mission statement, “supports… research projects on the region, and the application of these endeavors to community benefit” (Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies 2016). This research project is place-based, regional, and result in benefit to the community through its identification of the ecological issues related to recreation-based development, first for the specific purpose of rock-climbing and later for other forms of outdoor recreation. It will collect data on the actual impact of these activities and will inform land-use decisions through science-based study, allaying or confirming concerns over the perceived environmental impacts of these sports.
Nearly twenty years ago, a study of recreational activities in national forests—but applicable to state and private land as well—found that the demand for outdoor recreation space in Southern Appalachia greatly exceeded the supply of available, developed, and managed space (Morton 1997). As population in the region has increased, particularly among those who intentionally move to places because of their recreational opportunities, this demand has grown even more.
The findings of this project will contribute to a better understanding of what is at stake, environmentally, when an area is opened (or kept open) to access for rock-climbing. This research will help to resolve a paradox: on the one hand, climbers themselves—along with many outside the climbing community—view rock-climbing as an environmentally benign activity, practiced by sustainability-minded athletes; yet on the other hand, land managers are often reluctant to allow access to potential climbing sites, in part out of fear for the environmental degradation that they associate with the sport. If our findings indicate that environmental degradation is associated with rock-climbing then land managers may be right to resist allowing access for the sport. If, however, we do not find associations between climbing and environmental degradation, this may indicate an area of environmentally benign potential growth in the ecotourism sector within Southern Appalachia.
Rock-climbing is, of course, only one of the myriad forms of outdoor recreation popular on Sewanee’s Domain and throughout Southern Appalachia. After the evaluative models are developed for this project the transfer to other forms of recreation would be rather straightforward.
The students involved in this project as research assistants will be chosen carefully. The ideal student assistants will combine a dedication to the scientific method, an enthusiasm for rock-climbing and/or other outdoor recreational activities, and a connection to the Southern Appalachian region. As such they will be given an opportunity to conduct meaningful scientific research, following an established theoretical framework, and to apply that research to a recreational activity that they enjoy in a region that they care deeply about. Currently I do not plan to connect this research project directly to a course (although it will certainly be mentioned in my Environmental Policy and Law course) but I would consider establishing an independent study during the Easter semester for my student research assistants if their time commitment seems likely to justify one.
Staff members at the University of the South, particular those involved in Domain Management, will benefit from the data we collect at climbing sites (and later, along trails and at sites of other recreational activities). According to Sewanee’s outgoing Director of Environmental Stewardship, the two biggest areas of need for future research on the Domain are fire and recreation (Kevin Hiers, pers comm). This project will contribute valuable data toward the latter topic.
Finally, I will benefit from this research through the initiation of a locally based research project with sites on and around the Domain, addressing questions that I am academically prepared to answer. Until now my research has primarily been based outside of the US. When I came to Sewanee in 2014 I knew that I wanted to make use of the unique resource that is the Domain for my research. Over the past two years I have talked with faculty, students, and staff about current and potential Domain-based research opportunities. This recreation ecology project is an ideal way for me to begin to make use of the research potential of the Domain. While I plan to continue with my overseas research agendas, particularly in the Caribbean, the addition of a local/regional project will be a nice complement to my research portfolio.